Phil Kessel, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Can the stacked American roster, armed with the world's top player, buck its trend of falling short at major international tournaments?
The debating should reach a fever pitch as we unveil our seventh of eight World Cup 2016 roster projections with Team USA. It has the second-largest pool of NHL talent to draw from of any team in the tourney, so it took a lot of trimming to settle on three goalies and 20 skaters. We'll likely see a lot of variation in roster picks among fans and pundits. The Americans, like the Russians, have fallen short of considerable hype on the international stage of late. The Yankees have failed to medal in three of five Olympics since NHL participation began and lost to Canada in the gold medal game twice. Team USA has medalled just twice in its past 11 world championships, capturing bronze both times. The country's National Team Development Program has churned out some skilled prospects and yielded world junior gold in 2010 and 2013, however. The future of USA hockey looks promising. As for the 2016 World Cup? This is a top-three team on paper, well rounded and as strong as it's ever been on defense. Here is my projected roster. A reminder: every player must be 24 or older by Oct. 1, 2016. That means no Johnny Gaudreau or Brandon Saad or Jack Eichel for USA.
Ben Bishop He's tall, he's athletic, he handles the puck well and he's in his prime. So much to like. Bishop is a No. 3 more than capable of shouldering No. 1 duty.
Jonathan Quick Quick is a virtual lock for the team, but I'm not backing him as the starter. That may seem like sacrilege given his Stanley Cup rings and big-game experience, but there's another man simply playing better than any other American netminder these days…
Cory Schneider So durable, so consistent and proud owner of the
highest career save percentage in NHL history. Schneider has almost singlehandedly made New Jersey into a playoff contender. Let's give him a shot to start for his country.
On the bubble: Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard, Ryan Miller
Dustin Byfuglien The Winnipeg Jets recognized what they had in Big Buff: an utterly unique hockey player. Name me another 6-foot-5, 260-pound man who can move the puck and play forward or defense on top of the requisite big man skills (hard hitting and shooting). They gave him his due with a lucrative contract extension. Now it's time for the Team USA brass to give Byfuglien a roster spot. Believe it or, he's never played in a major international tournament.
John Carlson He's been out of the limelight in D.C. this year because (a) the Caps have so many other star players diverting attention and (b) he's missed a handful of games due to injury. Carlson, though, is everything you want in a top-pair D-man. He can play huge minutes, he can post prolific point totals and he can battle opposing teams' top forwards. Carlson isn't the meanest of customers, but he's extremely well rounded. He's a right-handed shot to boot.
Justin Faulk True story: at the All-Star Game media day event last month, I approached Faulk, who was by himself. I looked around and asked, "Are people waiting to interview you?" not knowing why it was so quiet. "Nope," he said. "I'm just sitting here." The moment epitomized Faulk's obscurity playing in Carolina. No one seems to realize how good this kid is. If we exclude hybrids Byfuglien and Brent Burns, the only full-time defensemen with more goals than Faulk over the past two seasons are Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Erik Karlsson and Shea Weber.
Erik Johnson It was a tough choice between Johnson and Torey Krug for the No. 7 blueliner. I went with Johnson since the U.S. has plenty of good power play options already and since Johnson is much bigger and more versatile.
Ryan McDonagh He skates like the wind, and he's a natural-born minute muncher. He's a lock to make the team and should play in the top four.
Kevin Shattenkirk Shattenkirk is among the best pure puck-moving defensemen in the game and will make for an ideal power play quarterback. He'd pair beautifully with a bomber like Byfuglien.
Ryan Suter Leads the universe in minutes, and nothing should change at the World Cup. The do-it-all Suter will be tasked with the toughest defensive assignments.
On the bubble: Zach Bogosian, Danny DeKeyser, Cam Fowler, Jake Gardiner, Alex Goligoski, Andy Greene, Torey Krug, Nick Leddy, Paul Martin, Alec Martinez, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Jeff Petry, Keith Yandle
David Backes Backes is a big man who plays a taxing style and has taken some significant hits in his career, so it's fair to question if he's slowing down in his early 30s. For that reason, I prefer him on a powerhouse checking line than in a high-leverage top-six role.
Tyler Johnson It's been a season to forget for the small, feisty Tampa Bay Lightning pivot. Still, his wheels and creativity should play well in such a high-skill tournament.
Patrick Kane Carey Price was the best hockey player on Earth a year ago. The unofficial title now belongs to Kane. He's the top stickhandler and the most dynamic offensive weapon in the sport. And he'll obviously have the greatest impact on how far the U.S. goes or doesn't go.
Phil Kessel How weird is it to say Kessel is no longer a shoo-in for this team? His star has fallen that significantly over the past year and a half. The Pittsburgh Penguins so far have received the underachieving Kessel from the Leafs instead of the all-world sniper of seasons past. Regardless, his shot is virtually peerless. The Americans will want his pure scoring ability.
Chris Kreider I almost went with Bobby Ryan but decided to diversify the U.S. forward corps. Kreider brings tremendous speed, he can score enough, and he also brings some snarl to the table. He'd be a great fourth-liner on this team.
Kyle Okposo Here's your third member of what should be an extremely fun checking trio alongside Backes and Kreider.
T.J. Oshie T.J. Sochi can be T.J. World Cup, though he just squeaks onto my roster as the 13th forward. His hands and ability to bust out big plays make him a change-of-pace option to rotate in if the U.S. struggles early.
Max Pacioretty 'Patches' is a lock to me. He's one of the game's most unappreciated goal scorers, and he's well liked among his teammates. The Montreal Canadiens players voted him captain over P.K. Subban, remember.
Zach Parise Parise may never reach the ceiling he teased when he was so tough to stop at the 2010 Olympics. He's an effective front-line forward nonetheless, a strong leader and adept at generating shots.
Joe Pavelski I still don't think the hockey universe understands just how good this guy is. Pavelski can rifle the puck, he's dynamite on faceoffs, he can play any forward position…an extremely valuable piece. A complete player.
Derek Stepan Stepan can't seem to find the long-term consistency to put together that monster 80-point season with the New York Rangers. His skill set is one the U.S. needs, though, as he's one of the better pure puck distributors out there.
James van Riemsdyk Don't forget about JVR just because he's been injured and toiling with the tanking Toronto Maple Leafs. He's an extremely athletic left winger with nice touch around the net and elite tip-in ability.
Blake Wheeler Wheeler was a notorious All-Star Game snub but at least got his first USA Olympic nod in 2014. He's closer to a sure thing than ever for 2016. He's a unique player, towering and strong but blessed with rare playmaking skills and smarts for a right winger.
On the bubble: Justin Abdelkader, Cam Atkinson, Nick Bjugstad, Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan, Charlie Coyle, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes, Ryan Kesler, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Kyle Palmieri, Bobby Ryan, Craig Smith, Paul Stastny, Colin Wilson
OTHER WORLD CUP ROSTER PROJECTIONS Feb. 17: Team Finland
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-finland/ Feb. 18: Team Sweden
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-sweden/ Feb. 19: Team North America
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-north-america/ Feb. 22: Team Russia
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-russia/ Feb. 23: Team Czech Republic
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-czech-republic/ Feb. 24: Team Europe
http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/projected-world-cup-2016-roster-team-europe/ Feb. 26: Team Canada
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin